U. S. & China are new Competitors in an old, obscure, but important island dispute

A tug of war between China and America in the Indian Ocean

Saltwire: Atlantic Canada News Service — Sept. 6, 2023

The Chagos islands, with Diego Garcia, Indian Ocean

Most of the international community regards the Chagos Islands as belonging to Mauritius, from which they were detached in 1965.
Henry Srebrnik, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island, provided the following opinion article.

Is the sun about to set on Britain’s control of the Chagos Islands? This archipelago of around 60 islands can be found halfway between East Africa and Southeast Asia. They are over 1,500 kilometres south of India, and even further from Mauritius, from which they were detached in 1965.

The Chagos group is currently governed by London as the British Indian Ocean Territory, but most of the international community regards it as belonging to Mauritius.

Also at stake is the future of the indigenous population, the Chagossians, who were expelled from their homes in the 1960s and 1970s. For decades, Britain has blocked them from returning to their islands. For what reason? And why has this become the centre of a power struggle between the United States and China?

Unlawful occupation

Mauritius remained a British colony until 1968, so Britain was able to remove the local population from the Chagos archipelago to make way for a major American military base on Diego Garcia. The 27-square-kilometre atoll is Washington’s most important asset in the vast Indo-Pacific region west of Pearl Harbour.

A Chagos community, pre-forced evacuation; Human Rights Watch photo.

Back then, Mauritius had no say in the fate of its remote island dependency, but now Mauritius demands their return. In 2019, the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ highest court, ruled that the British occupation of the islands was unlawful. So last year, the United Kingdom set in motion negotiations with Mauritius over a handover of the Chagos Islands.

Washington doesn’t want to give away its crucial strategic asset on Diego Garcia, so it is currently bargaining with Mauritius over giving it a lease to the archipelago.

And in a move that could dramatically inflame diplomatic tensions, China is courting Mauritius too. Beijing has been pouring investments into the country, developing its tourist infrastructure and buying friends and influence there.

Long-range routes

China has long been extending its own sphere of influence in crucial trade routes through the South China Sea. Now Beijing is looking to secure its long-range routes through the Indian Ocean to the oil of the Middle East. By placing their own navy and bases in the region, their global trade will be more secure.

The U.S. fears that China might build a military base in the Chagos Archipelago once the islands have been returned to Mauritian control. One version of this argument is that Mauritius intends to eject the U.S. from Diego Garcia and invite China to fill its place. Another version is that China might militarize one of the other islands of the Chagos group. This all means that Mauritius could find itself at the centre of an aggressive bidding war between Washington and Beijing over the Chagos Islands.

Many Mauritians are of Chinese heritage, having arrived on the island between the 17th and 19th centuries, and Beijing hopes to play on their patriotic nostalgia.

Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean nation is working to attract Chinese tourists, historically a major market for the country, following the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism is the third pillar of the country’s economy, accounting for eight per cent percent of the nation’s gross national product in 2022.

“The reopening of the Chinese borders will give a new glimpse of hope to the tourism industry,” asserted Arvind Bundhun, the director of the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority in April. “We are glad and ready to welcome Chinese tourists to Mauritius.”

Many Mauritians are of Chinese heritage, having arrived on the island between the 17th and 19th centuries, and Beijing hopes to play on their patriotic nostalgia.

Sino-Mauritians are heavily active in various spheres, from textiles to real estate to retail; their cultural footprint can be seen around the island in the form of traditional pagodas, active cultural associations, and the vibrant Chinatown in the capital, Port Louis.

A Free Trade Agreement between Mauritius and China was signed in 2019 and entered into force on Jan. 1, 2021, the first that China has signed with a country in Africa. It will give Mauritius access to a huge market of some 1.4 billion inhabitants.

– – – –
Background: The Ilois of Chagos: victims of a 50-year-old crime

Gwynne Dyer, Feb. 24, 2022

“The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours … There will be no indigenous population except seagulls,” wrote Sir Paul Gore-Booth, a senior official at the British Foreign Office, as the plan to expel the 2,000 Chagos Islanders from their homes was taking shape in 1966.

Chagos islands, in intercontinental context

“We must surely be very tough about this.”

They were indeed very tough about it. Six years later the Chagossians (Ilois, as they call themselves) were scooped up, loaded on ships and dumped on the waterfront of Port Louis in Mauritius, where most of them have lived in abject poverty ever since. But this month, a number of them went back to the islands on a Mauritian ship.

Not to stay, yet. They were shadowed by a British fisheries protection vessel throughout their visit, which comically claimed that it was “cooperating in environmental research.” But the balance has now tipped so far in favour of the former residents that the British ship dared not stop the Mauritian vessel.

While their own ship’s crew worked to define the territory’s maritime boundaries for the Mauritian government, the Ilois revisited their old homes, now roofless and overrun by vegetation. Afterwards they had to go back to Mauritius — but why were they exiled in the first place?

The crime that Gore-Booth was shamelessly discussing in 1966 was committed on behalf of the United States. The Chagos Islands, an archipelago of 62 coral atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean, would make an ideal bomber base from which to dominate most of south Asia and eastern Africa and the Pentagon wanted it.

Britain, in its usual kiss-up, kick-down mode, was happy to oblige, but there was a problem. The Chagos Islands had been governed as part of the British colony of Mauritius, which was due to get its independence in 1968. The United States wasn’t keen on having a major strategic base in an independent African country, so something had to be done.

The solution, obviously, was to separate the Chagos Islands from Mauritius and declare them the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Easily done: offer the Mauritians £3 million for the islands, and tell them they can’t have independence unless they accept the deal.

However, this was happening at the height of decolonization, when colonial territories all over the Third World were claiming the right of self-determination. What if the Ilois do the same? Well, then, we’d better remove all the inhabitants.

So that’s what Britain did in 1972, falsely claiming that there was no resident population, only contract workers. The Ilois have not been allowed to return for 50 years and all the people who were actually born there are getting old, but their children and grandchildren have not forgotten.

They actually managed to get a decision in the British courts in 2000 ruling that the expulsion had been unlawful and ordering the British government to let the islanders go home. It might even have been obeyed — except that 2001 brought the 9/11 attacks, and the U.S. base on the Chagos island of Diego Garcia became a key hub in the war on terror.

American B-52s flying from the Chagos Islands have bombed Afghanistan and Iraq at intervals for 20 years, and Diego Garcia, with no civilian population, became a transit point for prisoners being flown untraceably between American black sites around the planet. The islands were on long lease from the U.K. and the U.S. didn’t want them given back.

A composite photo of Diego Garcia and the B-52s once stationed there. The island was also used as an “invisible” transit point for many of the detainees who were held and tortured in secret U. S. “black sites.”

Britain still insists it is the sovereign power on the islands (although it is the U.S. that runs them), but since the International Court of Justice ruled in 2019 that the whole expulsion had been illegal, it has been on the defensive. The UN General Assembly, and more recently the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, have backed that ruling.

It will take some time, but the United States no longer really needs a base on Diego Garcia since it has access to air bases in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, all much closer to the action. Moreover, Mauritius says that it doesn’t mind if the base stays so long as it gets its islands back.

So, the Ilois will be going home one day soon. Meanwhile, here’s a fun fact: the Chagos archipelago is at the bottom of a giant bowl-shaped depression in the ocean almost 100 metres deep. If the sea was actually level – if not for the huge gravitational anomaly that holds that bowl open – the Chagos Islands would all be in very deep water.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is The Shortest History of War.

A Human Rights Watch report, “That’s When the Nightmare Started,”  was issued in February 2023. It is online here.

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